The most well-known line of Abraham Lincoln’s speech to the Illinois Republican State Convention in June of 1858 is simple and succinct: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Mr. Lincoln was, of course, speaking of the despicable American institution of slavery, but his wisdom applies equally well to the challenges dividing our nation today. Any country where one half of its citizenry is set in implacable opposition to the other half is in deep, deep trouble.
There are many issues that divide our nation, and there are many labels we apply to either ourselves or those with whom we disagree. However, there is a single issue and label upon which a surprising number of Americans can agree: they believe themselves to be “victims” of injustices for which they now loudly and angrily demand redress.
A nation that perceives itself to be comprised of victims and victimizers is a fairly unique phenomenon in American history. Rather than be divided by differing ideas or different policies, we now are sliced into an infinite number of groups and subgroups that are defined by their various victimizations. Grievance politics now rules not only our governing bodies but almost every institution in America. Social media influencers, celebrities, commentators, artists, and actors now pour embittered rage into our national discourse, and the underlying message of much of our cultural and intellectual lives is that we are harmed by a world that neither embraces our uniqueness nor recognizes our pain.
Therefore, discussions inevitably focus on hardening the battle lines rather than seeking common ground. Our individual and group grievances become both our sword and our shield, and hurling the crudest and rudest invective at those outside of our own group is believed to be justified by the misery others have caused to us.
Unsurprisingly, compromise is an unwelcome notion. We instead celebrate the supposedly brave individuals who insist every discussion be transformed into a life and death battle between good and evil—evil, of course, being found everywhere. It should perhaps be a clear signal that our witch hunting has reached absurd levels when we deem it reasonable to ban Dr. Seuss books, but I am unsure whether this message will be received on the front lines of our never ending wars about microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and which statue to tear down today.
The paradigm that turns every American into either a victim or victimizer is actively encouraged both by those who are true believers and those who are merely looking to cash in. It is indeed odd how many celebrities now build their careers and personas around the private pains that they endlessly broadcast in order to create an audience, build a brand, and garner the clicks or views necessary to pay the bills. Politicians, academics, and the 21st century political academics who routinely confuse indoctrination with education almost all play the celebrity grievance game to one extent or another as a path to power and advancement. The damage done to our nation by these divisive tactics seems of little concern to those who make their livings by continually stirring the emotions of the continually aggrieved.
Everybody yearns for acceptance, or at least tolerance, from society at large, although this might not always be possible in a country as amazingly heterogeneous as our own; the flip side of diversity is the simple fact that not everyone will agree with your behavior of beliefs. Therefore, the open endorsement and advocacy that so many groups and individuals insist are necessary in order to eliminate the hatreds they perceive are woven into the fabric of America is unattainable, and believing it is possible is a prescription for conflict. To eliminate differences of opinion would require robotic thought control that results in the worst sort of punitive totalitarianism, which we get a small foretaste of every time someone is “cancelled” because of their beliefs. This is a road we must not travel if we wish to remain a free society.
Recognizing and respecting differing ideas and lifestyles is necessary in a country where the majority of the population is composed of refugees and immigrants from every other region and nation on our planet. America is a rich and fascinating mix of languages, religions, foods, dress, and customs that is occasionally bewildering—but never dull. To try to mandate an oppressive conformity in order to impose some dismal fantasy of harmony on a nation as loudly and proudly argumentative as our own is, in fact, a repudiation of our shared humanity.
No one should be made to feel like a victim, but the solution is not to silence or censor the contradictions and controversies within our nation that are our very strength. We need to be able to speak freely without fear of condemnation, ask questions that perhaps betray our ignorance of people different from ourselves without fear of ridicule—and accept that others may hold fast to beliefs different from our own without rancor.
Perhaps it is distressing that not everyone likes us or endorses our existence, but this is the reality of the human condition. We should learn to listen without lashing out, and we must ignore those whose only mission in life seems to be to tell us who to hate. Our reactions and words will not always be perfect because we as a species are not perfect, and we will often encounter those who are happiest when they can denigrate others in order to bolster their own fragile self-esteem.
However, we can aspire to be both teachers and students within the troubled world we all inhabit, and the recognition that we all need to navigate a complex country inhabited by those whose ideas are adversarial—and possibly insulting—is the price we pay when we celebrate the diversity that defines the American way of life. To presume that disagreement is, by definition, a sign of disrespect is to reject the multicultural mix of our great and good nation.